What Every Pet Owner Needs to Know About Heartworm

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April is Heartworm Awareness month. Most pet owners will have heard of heartworm—true to its name, it’s a worm that lives in pets’ hearts. Unfortunately, heartworm infection is common in both dogs and cats all throughout the lower 48 states. Domestic and wild dogs are the normal hosts for heartworms.  Although less likely to develop a heartworm infection, cats and ferrets can harbor infections as well.

The peak months for heartworm transmission in the Northern Hemisphere are typically July and August. However, urban sprawl has led to the formation of “heat islands,” as buildings and parking lots retain heat during the day creating microenvironments with the potential to support the development of heartworm larvae in mosquitos during colder months, thereby lengthening the transmission season, potentially enabling year-round transmission.

Why is heartworm awareness important?

Heartworm infection is a life-threatening infection. The parasites damage the lining of the blood vessels in the lungs causing inflammation and thickening of vessels. As the number of worms in the body increase, they begin to damage the heart. In dogs, lethargy, decreased appetite, cough, and difficulty breathing can develop. Eventually, right-sided heart failure can develop. Unfortunately, cats can suddenly die without showing any other signs in reaction to a heartworm dying naturally. Cats can also experience vomiting, gagging, difficulty breathing, and weight loss.

What do we do to prevent it?

There are three different options for heartworm prevention in dogs: monthly oral preventatives, monthly topical preventatives, and a twice-yearly injection. All of these preventatives act to kill some of the immature stages of heartworms before they develop into adults. Most also kill circulating baby heartworms which can cause an allergic reaction. It is important that your dog be tested for heartworms before starting prevention. In cats, there are only monthly topical preventatives or monthly oral preventatives, which are not as widely used.

What can we do to treat it?

Treatment to kill adult heartworms in dogs is available, but it is not without risks. The medicine is injected into the dog’s back muscles in a series of 3 treatments. As the adult worms are killed, your pet’s body has to breakdown the worms. If your dog is active or exercising during this process, they can develop blockages in the blood flow to their lungs, and sudden respiratory difficulty that is an emergency. However, the longer worms stay in your dog’s heart and lungs, the more damage they do. For cats, there is no treatment for heartworm infection. That’s why prevention is so important.

How do I know if my pet has it?

Some pets with mild heartworm infections do not show any symptoms. Other more serious symptoms can be a persistent cough, sudden lack of ability to exercise, changes in breathing, or even fainting. Sometimes these symptoms can be subtle, which is why it’s important to keep a close eye on any change in your pet’s behavior. If you’re not available 24/7 to watch your pet, it’s best to have a pet sitter who can periodically check in on them—they’ll be happier, healthier, and a good pet sitter will notice any of these signs so you can be informed right away.

While heartworm can be a stressful condition for both you and your pet, what’s important is that you work with your veterinarian to go through the options for treatment and provide support to your pet as best you can.

And if you need some support, our Pet Nannies at Pet Nanny Inc are ready and waiting to help shoulder some of the load. Follow us on our social media accounts or give us a call at 734-981-6108. Alternatively, you can use our on-line contact form and we’ll get in touch with you!

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